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Blake Griffin’s Career: The Context, the Expectations, and the Disappointments

A long look at the winding road of Blake Griffin’s career, and trying to understand why he might not have become what we hoped he could be.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Entering the 2009 draft, Blake Griffin was one of the most hyped prospects of the past decade-- a once in a generation combination of power, athleticism, and actual basketball skill. He missed the first season of his career due to knee surgeries, making his debut even more anticipated. Blake didn’t disappoint, putting together one of the greatest rookie seasons of all time (yes, of all time)… and one of the most exciting. Blake dunked on just about everyone in the NBA, and his ferocious airborne assaults quickly became the stuff of legend. Clippers fans knew they had something great, something special. The allure of playing with Griffin was enough to entice Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets, the best point guard in the NBA at the time, to maneuver his way to the Clippers. Lob City was created, and the Clippers immediately became championship contenders. Blake Griffin was just 22 years old. The NBA was his for the taking.

Blake slowly improved over his first few years in the NBA, and did so in multiple facets of his game. He developed a midrange jumper that became a solid weapon, worked hard to become an average defender rather than a poor one, and made strides as a passer and playmaker. 2013-2014 was the year where he finally put it all together, and was rewarded for his efforts by placing 3rd in the MVP balloting. Still only 25, Blake seemed assured of being a top MVP candidate for another handful of years at least, one of the top 10 players in the NBA at an absolute minimum. It just hasn’t worked out that way.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin duo was that Blake was at a perfect age to slowly supplant Chris Paul as the Clippers’ best player while CP aged into his 30s. As Paul left his prime, Blake would enter his, and this ascension would assure the Clippers of a long stretch of relevancy and contender status. The relevancy and status has remained at high levels… but Blake has never passed Paul as the Clippers’ best or most important player. And that is a real disappointment. A lot of that has to do with the ridiculousness of Chris Paul’s play, and his seeming refusal to start his decline even in his age-31 season—a truly incredible feat. Yet Blake hasn’t been able to improve on that 2013-2014 season for any significant stretch (outside of one playoff series in 2015 against the Spurs), and that is a major cause for concern. Blake is no longer young. He’s almost 28 years old, smack in the middle of his prime: he should be at the peak of his powers. That doesn’t seem to be the case (though I really, really hope he proves me wrong), and the reasons why are extremely complicated.

First off, let’s put some context in for Blake. He’s a great player, one of the best in Clippers’ history, and was on track to be an All Star before injuries waylaid his campaign (more on that later). While many people might not put him in their top 10 NBA-player lists right now, he’s certainly no lower than 20, which is still really damn good. Blake is a threat to post 20-10-5 (points, rebounds, and assists) on any given night, which is something only a few other NBA players are capable of: LeBron, KD, Westbrook, Harden, etc. Those are all the best players in the NBA today. So then, what’s the problem? Well, there are several.

One is that while Blake has certainly made improvements on the defensive end, he’s not a real plus there, nor will he ever be. While players like Harden and Westbrook aren’t great at that end either, it’s more important for big men to be good defenders than it is for guards. Part of Blake’s problems on this end aren’t really in his control—he has short arms/wingspan, and the best defenders in the NBA typically have long arms that can bother shots and collect steals. However, rebounding is a huge aspect of defensive play, and Blake hasn’t pulled in over 10 rebounds a game since his sophomore year in the league. While there are legitimate reasons for this decline, it’s still something I think he could improve upon.

A far more significant issue has been Blake’s failure to move beyond the three-point line. Other star big men such as Al Horford, Brook Lopez, and Marc Gasol have exponentially increased their shots from deep in the past season or two, opening up their games in the post and spacing the floor for their teammates. In fact, Brook has made 70 point shots this season after only taking 31 in his first eight seasons. I’m not suggesting that Blake start taking four or five threes a game, but he doesn’t even take one per game on average, and that just isn’t going to cut it in today’s NBA. Three point shots are more efficient than two point shots: it’s simple math. Blake Griffin has become proficient (albeit highly streaky) at midrange jump shots, but moving back a few feet would make his shooting a much bigger threat. As is, teams largely let him fire away, content that he is taking shots from the most inefficient spot on the court. If Blake developed into a legitimate three-point threat, the Clippers wouldn’t have to go small to get ideal spacing—and give up their size/athleticism advantage in the process.

The final real problem with Blake’s development has been, for lack of a better term, his failure to develop a “clutch gene”. While his clutch splits aren’t terrible, Clippers’ fans have complained for years about his hesitation with the ball in crunch time, frequently leading to turnovers and poor offensive possessions. This is especially true when compared to the steady hand of Chris Paul, who can get good looks at the basket almost any time he wants. Big men usually don’t run offenses down the stretch of games, even if they are the primary weapon of said offense (think Duncan or Dirk), but Blake’s unique skills make it a bit frustrating that he hasn’t been better with the ball in his hands down the stretch of games.

The complexity to these questions surrounding Blake’s game arises because they are mostly tied to his fit on the court with his fellow star players. To be more specific, DeAndre Jordan’s rise to stardom and the arrival of Chris Paul have put dampers on Blake’s growth as a player. Blake had his highest rebounding rates in his first two seasons—before DeAndre Jordan became included by Doc Rivers as a truly essential part of the Clippers’ core. While Blake’s third season-when DJ was still a role player-was the year his rebounding fell off a cliff, there’s no question that DJ’s presence on the floor has enabled Blake to focus on other aspects of his game than rebounding. DJ gobbles up rebounds so easily that Blake hasn’t had to attack the boards as hard, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. One of the things that made Blake so special his first season was his ferocity on the glass, and that aspect of his play has just about vanished.

Similarly, DJ’s complete lack of an offensive game farther than five feet from the basket is what necessitates Blake’s acquisition of a three-point shot. If DJ could shoot even a little bit, Blake’s lack of range would be of lesser import. As it is, the Clippers’ spacing with both of them on the court is far from ideal. Finally, Chris Paul’s very excellence in crunch time means that he’s usually the one controlling the offense at the end of games. Blake might not have improved much in that area because he simply hasn’t gotten enough practice or opportunities in real-life situations to control things. We will never know what Blake Griffin’s game would look like if Chris Paul had never played for the Clippers, or if DeAndre Jordan hadn’t developed into a premier center. But it isn’t hard to imagine that he might be putting up numbers just as crazy as Westbrook and Harden are right now—barring injuries, of course.

Where would Blake Griffin be without the myriad of injuries in his professional career? Impossible to say. There is no way to know the extent to which various hurts have hindered his progress, nor can we tell just how much different the Clippers’ last two seasons would look if Griffin’s injuries hadn’t marred them. All Clippers’ fans can do is wistfully dream on what might have been. The only thing beyond doubt is that Blake’s injuries can’t be blamed on him.

However… that doesn’t make them any less disappointing. Greg Oden had one of the most disappointing careers in NBA history (he has unfairly called himself the biggest draft bust of all time), even though that career was almost completely out of his control. Blake’s scenario might be even more frustrating, because many of his injuries haven’t even been related to one another. In the past two seasons, he’s suffered a broken hand, knee surgery, and lingering hamstring tightness/pain. Put together, these ailments have cost him 67 regular seasons games, a staggering total. Worse, they have come in years where the Clippers have had their two strongest overall teams. Worst of all, he’s the “young” star, the one who was supposed to relieve Chris Paul from the toil of carrying a team as he aged. Instead, he has been absent, and Chris Paul has worn down as a result. Doc Rivers has done a fantastic job in keeping Paul’s minutes down, but he has still had to do too much on the court: a direct result of Blake not being on it.

One of the things I hate in a lot of writing on athletes is a condemnation of a player’s work ethic if they don’t pan out. “He didn’t go to the gym enough”, “he just didn’t have that fire”, and other such phrases are common sayings when eulogizing player’s careers. Unless such information is common knowledge, I think it’s disrespectful to make judgments on players in that way, and I want to avoid that with Blake. By all accounts, Griffin is a hard worker, and he has made definite improvements over the course of his career. His work ethic is not at question here. Instead, fitting into the story of Blake being a victim largely of outside factors, it is important to discuss how the NBA has changed since he first entered the league.

In the current 2016-2017 season, every team in the NBA takes over 20 three-point field goals per game. In Blake’s rookie season, back in 2010-2011, only 8 teams did so. The league leader in attempts back then was Orlando at 25.5. Now, 19 teams take more than that. There are two direct results of the NBA’s three-point explosion. The first is that big men (as discussed above) have moved beyond the three-point line. In return, that forced other big men to guard them. But because big men are slower on their feet, and height matters less out on the perimeter, teams have gone small to better defend against the three-point ball, while at the same time increasing their own abilities from outside the arc. Spacing and small-ball are the two biggest trends in the past half-decade in the NBA. Sadly, those trends are not favorable to Blake Griffin.

Big men must either be three-point threats or rim-protectors to remain on the floor in 2017. Those who aren’t have increasingly been shifted to more limited roles, mostly as scorers off the bench. Blake is obviously too good to be benched, especially since (despite all the critics), he plays extremely well in the starting lineup. But the shift in play has taken away two of his biggest advantages. He used to be able to blow by slower bigs on the perimeter and get to the rim with ease. Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kevin Love all had no answers for him out there. Now, however, many teams can guard him with combo forwards on the perimeter—Blake isn’t going to take Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard off the dribble frequently. While he can punish them in the post, the presence of DeAndre Jordan clogs the lane, making things more difficult for Blake at the basket. On the other end, having to chase smaller players around the three-point line tires Blake out, and draws him away from the basket—another possible reason for his decline in rebounds. While he puts forth his all, Blake just isn’t going to be able to stop small-ball forwards consistently. Similarly, his lack of rim protection makes DeAndre Jordan a necessity on the court, preventing Blake from moving down a spot himself. Although Blake is still a top-tier power forward, the game is much harder for him than it was five years ago.

Expectations aren’t static. Cavs fans (or NBA fans in general) may have had expectations that Anthony Bennett would be at least a starting level player when he was drafted 1st overall in 2013. Two years later, he was hanging on by a thread to his NBA career as a benchwarmer in Toronto, and nobody expected him to do anything of consequence in the league. Likewise, Blake Griffin was expected to be a star player when he was drafted in 2009. He has been a star, a superstar even. However, his rookie season raised those expectations considerably, as did his MVP level campaign in 2014. And of course, as expectations increased, so did the possibility of disappointment.

I thought that Blake Griffin could be the best player on a Clippers team with real potential at winning the NBA championship. So far, he hasn’t. A lot of that isn’t on him. He has been injured several times, other teams have substantially improved in improbable ways, some of his contemporaries have upped their own ceilings far beyond what many people thought was possible, and the NBA has evolved in ways that go against his style of play. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be disappointed that his move beyond the three-point line has been slow and largely ineffective. Or that he simply doesn’t take over games with his incredible scoring and rebounding abilities on a more frequent basis.

Blake Griffin’s failure to be a consistent top-five player, as he showed he could be in that 2013-2014 season, is a real factor in the Clippers’ failure over the past few seasons. Blake Griffin is one of my favorite players. His drafting by the Clippers saved the franchise from ignominy and irrelevance. I pray that he regains his MVP level form for the rest of this season, and helps lead this franchise into the Western Conference Finals and beyond. His career is not over, and with any luck he has many years left on the Clippers to swing my disappointment into approval. Here’s hoping, anyway.